Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 11:51 UK

Lars stares down Cannes critics

Danish director Lars von Trier has shocked this year's Cannes Film Festival with his challenging new work Antichrist.

Willem Dafoe, Lars von Trier and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Antichrist is the eighth von Trier film to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or

Speaking to the press ahead of Monday's premiere, however, the 53-year-old - no stranger to controversy - was unrepentant.

"I don't think I owe anyone an explanation," he said of the film, a dark thriller featuring graphic scenes of sex and mutilation. "I made it for myself.

"This is a very dark dream about guilt and sex and stuff," he continued, going on to call the film the most important of his career.

Critics in Cannes have been quick to demur, greeting Antichrist's first screening with a chorus of boos and derisive laughter.

Variety's Todd McCarthy called it "a big fat art-film fart", while The Times' reviewer described it as "emotionally uninvolving" and "turgidly dull".

Not everyone was unimpressed. The Hollywood Reporter's critic called it "visually gorgeous and teeming with grandiose ideas."

The Telegraph, meanwhile, said it was "cinema at its most extreme and mind-boggling" - a film that "looks brilliant", with "brave and truthful" performances.

'Hand of God'

Largely set in a cabin in the woods, Antichrist shows a married couple - played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg - recovering from the trauma of losing a child.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in Antichrist
The film tells of a married couple recovering from the death of a child

What follows involves sex, violence, an eviscerated talking fox and a climactic scene of genital self-mutilation that has led some to accuse the director of misogyny.

Von Trier defended this scene, however, saying it "came in naturally". "Not to show it would be lying," he added.

"I never have a choice," he said. "It's the hand of God, I'm afraid. And I am the best film director in the world."

This last comment is typical of a flamboyant director who has enjoyed an occasionally fractious relationship with this event.

In 1991, for example, he threw away one of the prizes presented to his film Europa and dubbed director Roman Polanski, president of that year's jury, a "midget".

Von Trier had better luck in 2000, when his surreal musical Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer Bjork, won the coveted Palme d'Or.

'Very loving'

In recent years, however, he has battled severe depression that made him doubtful whether he would ever make another film.

Lars von Trier (right) with Bjork
Von Trier and Bjork (left) were both rewarded at Cannes for Dancer in the Dark

Dafoe, who previously worked with von Trier on 2005 drama Manderlay, admitted this sometimes became an issue on set.

"Everything depended on how Lars was feeling, so there was always a sensitivity," he said on Monday.

Despite this, the US actor described him as "a very loving guy who's interested in the tension between men and women".

"I enjoy his company," he said. "I enjoy his sense of humour. He's a great filmmaker."

The softly-spoken Gainsbourg concurred, saying making the film has been "quite an experience" and "something that I won't live again that soon".

"The hardest part wasn't necessarily the sex and nudity," she added. "It was the scenes with emotion and suffering that felt the most raw."

A UK release date for Antichrist has yet to be announced.

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